By Pattie Fitzgerald, founder www.safelyeverafter.com
Nearly one out of four students reported being bullied during the school year, according to a 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The stats are even worse if a child identifies as LGBTQ, with most of the bullying peaking in middle school. The consequences are alarming, with more and more victims inflicting self-harm, including cutting and suicide attempts. The situation is much different and much more serious than what most of us adults remember 20 or 30 years ago.
We have to start addressing this differently, NOW.
Forget the notion that “kids will be kids” or “all kids bully/get bullied.” That’s plain nonsense, but it’s a frequent response – often from the very people who should be protecting bullied children AND teaching kids who bully a different way to behave. Instead, overworked administrators often throw up their hands with a dismissive “let them sort it out themselves.”
I’m not trying to throw any school administrator under the bus. School officials don’t really want to allow bullying, and it’s not that they simply don’t care. But the truth is that many just don’t know how to handle it. It’s all well and good to spout “zero tolerance,” but what does that really mean, if anything?
Case in Point
A Santa Monica parent recently shared her story in the Santa Monica Daily Press. Her 5th grade son was bullied and teased mercilessly, beginning on an overnight school-sponsored trip. He told his parents about it, and they met with the principal. It was the end of the school year, so it was pushed aside without much attention. When middle school started, her son was back at school with many of the same kids who bullied him the previous year, and it started up again almost immediately. The school’s response to the parents: “All kids get bullied in middle school, and that’s no excuse for your son not to pay attention in class.” REALLY?!?!?!
It actually took this mom witnessing her son being physically assaulted on the schoolyard one day before administrators finally started to take things seriously. After looking into it a little more, the assistant principal contacted the parents and said, “I have to apologize to you — your son has been terrorized since his first day at our school, and I am very sorry.”
As it turned out, the bullies had made up a song about why their classmate should kill himself, and they sang it every day … yes, EVERY DAY, for three months. Their son stopped telling the “adults in charge” because no one would do anything about it. In December, he told his parents and counselors that he had, in fact, contemplated suicide because, in his words, he really believed “there was no way out.”
It shouldn’t take a child’s suicide for school communities to take this issue seriously. By then, statements such as: “We wish we’d known, we have zero tolerance, we would have done something, we’re so sorry…” are too little, too late. Frankly, it’s like pouring salt on the wound.
We tell kids: Come to us if you’re being bullied (or abused) but when they do, they’re often met with a lackadaisical response, preventing them from seeking further help. The worst part of this is that it misleads administrators into thinking they were right in assuming it was “no big deal, case closed.”
If you think this is an isolated incident or rare case, think again. If your child has never been bullied, it may be hard for a parent to understand how complicated and difficult it is to get support. If your family hasn’t had to deal with this, then thank your lucky stars. Seriously.
But please don’t minimize it with a misguided notion of “kids just need to toughen up, etc.” It’s just not that simple.
There’s a better way.
A Different Approach
I once worked closely with a middle school principal who was so skilled in handling this type of bullying issue. Her method not only ended the bullying, but it also made the bullied student feel safer AND didn't make the situation worse for anyone. The bullies also learned they wouldn’t be able to get away with their behavior, but she did this in such a way that she de-escalated their behavior without causing a bigger problem.
· She had the bullies and the bullied kid come to her office AT TOTALLY DIFFERENT TIMES to talk. Never together because that's the worst thing you can do.
· She told the bullied student that she would not allow this to happen, that she had asked specific adults at the school to monitor lunch, P.E., class time, etc.
· She let the bullied child know that ANYTIME he felt uncomfortable or scared, he could come sit in her office to get a break, whether she was there or not. She gave him a safe place to go and told him not to make a big deal about it, but to just get up and get to her. (She also let the teachers know this was a possibility and that they should allow it without comment at that moment.)
· She brought the other adults into the solution and gave them specifics on what to do if they saw any bullying.
· She spoke to the bullies, and said this:
"A couple of ADULTS at lunch noticed some of your behavior with a few students that was pretty inappropriate. Whether you realize it or not, you’re bullying and hurting other kids. You guys know, we have a zero tolerance policy here, and I don't want to make it a problem for you by suspending you or getting the school resource officer involved, but it's got to stop because that would have to be my next step. The adults will keep an eye on everything at lunch, and make sure this is finished so we don't have to go the next route. For the future, if you feel upset about another student, come here first because I want to help you figure it all out. But if it's about intolerance or just power-play meanness because you don't like someone, then I have to get involved again.”
· She also added the following dialogue, which may sound simple, but it made a difference: “Let's face it, you're not gonna like everyone at this school. Who does? Leave that person alone then, without creating drama so it doesn't end up actually making a more serious problem for you. For now, we'll just keep an eye on things out there without drawing attention to either of you. That way we'll be able to sort out anything else."
· She made it seem as though the bullies were basically under surveillance, that an ADULT brought the problem to her (not the victim) and that she’d definitely take it to the next level if she learned it happened again. However…
· The smart and effective tactic was that she didn’t address them with an anger-fueled lecture, because that would have just fired them up more the minute they left her office, and…
· She never mentioned the bullied child's name. She made it appear as though there was more than one “victim,” so that it didn't look as though they had been "ratted on," and she said THAT THE ADULTS ON THE YARD NOTICED THIS, NOT THAT THE BULLIED KID CAME IN AND TOLD.
This principal knew exactly what to do.
1. She believed the victim, didn’t trivialize the situation, nor did she blame the victim for being bullied.
2. She addressed everyone separately. This is most important because I have often seen administrators bring everyone in together to talk it out. That’s a disaster.
3. She let the bullies know their behavior was unacceptable, but that they also could come to her at any time.
4. She kept on top of the situation and brought in other adults with a specific plan for handling this.
5. And voila... the bullying stopped.
This is a true story. And it’s the first and only time I have seen a school administrator intervene in a way that worked.
The 21st century has brought significant changes in the ways we educate children. We need to look at 21st century solutions to bullying now, rather than sticking with outdated practices that don’t help anyone.
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Pattie Fitzgerald is the founder of www.safelyeverafter.com, and is a nationally renowned children’s author and child safety expert. Her work is focused primarily on the prevention of childhood sexual abuse and cyberbullying/cyber predator prevention education.